Mike O’Connor – Altarnun Revisited: Some Notes on Bagpipe Iconography in Cornwall
In his article Two-Chanter Bagpipes in England James Merryweather addresses the interpretation of images of musical instruments in medieval churches.[i] After a comprehensive review he concludes that iconography of two-chanter bagpipes does not demonstrate that such instruments were played in early renaissance England.
Context, Realism and Interpretation
Merryweather’s article highlights the problems of analysing such material. Some bench-end carvings do derive from pattern books and marginalia. Some carvings and illustrations are certainly allegorical, some depict Biblical history, some perhaps are just decorative. Yet some seem to serve other purposes, individually or collectively. Context is important. For example, much of the musical iconography at Beverley derives from the Minster’s association with local musicians’ guilds. The knowledge that many of his viewers would have a particular insight probably coloured the carver’s judgment. Within the limitations of his understanding and the medium it is conceivable that, where appropriate, realism would be sought. It might not be appropriate in a work that was fabulous, allegorical, or humorous. But even such depictions need not exclude accuracy, as they sometimes achieve their effect by contrasting the real and the unreal. Often such iconography can prove unwitting testimony to musical technology. For example around the country are many images of King David playing his harp. The harp shown is not a Biblical instrument but the harp known to the artists of the time. Furthermore, if a carving or picture provides a level of detail beyond that required for artistic purposes it may suggest that the artist is providing realism to add credibility to his work. Such a view would seem to be borne out by the research of the Montagus at Beverley.[ii]
Such considerations do not remove the basic difficulty implied by Merryweather. To be absolutely sure of an instrument’s use we need a credible documentary or archaeological account, preferably first hand. Many, consistent and detailed carvings would support, though not prove the point. Ethnographic analogy may assist. However, the absence of such evidence does not prove that an instrument was not used. Clearly there are many caveats associated with analysis of such iconography, but with caution lessons can be learned from context, technological background and detail.
Bagpipe Iconography in Cornwall and West Devon
Twin-chanter bagpipes appear in late-Medieval iconography at Altarnun, Davidstow, St. Austell, Marwood, and Tavistock. A single chanter bagpipe and other instruments are depicted at Launceston. The number of chanters in a carving at Bradock is unlear. The Davidstow image, which may depict an angel, may be stereotypical. St Austell is a gargoyle – unique in Cornwall, but still probably stereotypical. The piping dog of Bradock is a stereotypical image found on European pilgrim brooches and elsewhere. Marwood is a biblical depiction and could possibly be a generic representation of the pipes. The Tavistock piper looks a bit like those of Altarnun and Launceston, but the carving lacks detail that would enable anything to be said with certainty.
Iconography at Altarnun
Figure 1. Wooden bench end (c. 1520-1530) depicting a bagpiper at the Church of St. Nonna, Altarnun, Cornwall. SX223813. Note the bloussoned upper sleeve, long cuffs and panelled tunic. Luminaries debate whether the image shows a drone or a carrying case behind the piper. Photograph: M.J.O’Connor
Figure 2. Wooden bench end depicting a fiddler at Altarnun. Note the similar clothing detail. Photograph: M.J.O’Connor
A significant feature of the carving of a bagpiper in the church of St. Nonna at Altarnun, North Cornwall, is its context in a unique suite of bench end carvings. A contemporaneous panel bears an inscription declaring that the carvings were completed about 1520-1530, sadly the date is now unclear. The carvings depict in exquisite detail a bagpiper (figure 1), a player of an almost rectangular fiddle (figure 2), a jester, two sword-dancers and (probably) the village clerk stirring a large vat. The clothing shown in the carvings accurately reflects early 16th century fashion. It would be anomalous for such accuracy and detail to be forsaken in the depiction of the instruments.
We do not know why the carvings were made, or what decided their subject matter. The images are secular in nature, they do not seem to be Biblical or allegorical. But they were made at the end of a period in which the chancel was re-roofed, major works were completed on the main body of the church, and new furnishings were installed. A plausible interpretation of the images is that they show participants in a Church Ale conducted to celebrate and perhaps help fund such works. Such events are often recorded in church accounts in 16th century Cornwall, and could involve music, social dance, morris, and Robin Hood plays. If the images depict such an event then there would be no reason to eschew veracity. Indeed, if the congregation knew those involved there would be good reason to seek realism.
Iconography at Launceston
Figure 3. Lower left panel in granite. (c. 1511-1540) depicting (left to right) a fiddler, a lutenist, a harper and perhaps a canon. Exterior East Wall, Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Launceston. Cornwall. SX332848. The minstrels of St Mary were church musicians mentioned in 1440 by Edmund Lacey, Bishop of Exeter, and featuring in borough accounts many times from 1445/6 to 1520/1 and (perhaps) to 1574. Photograph: Royal Institution of Cornwall with permission.
Figure 4. Lower left panel, Launceston. Detail of the fiddler from St. Mary Magdalene. Increased contrast. Although the medium is moorstone granite, note the panelled skirt, blousonned sleeves, long cuffs, and rectangular (ish) fiddle. The clothing detail suggests that the Altarnun figures may have been associated with those at Launceston. Photograph: Royal Institution of Cornwall, used with permission.
Figure 5. Upper right panel, Launceston Detail of the bagpiper. Photograph: M.J. O’Connor
About eight miles North East of Altarnun is the town of Launceston, especially significant in medieval times. Central is the church of St. Mary Magdalene. It was built between 1511 and 1540, and was consecrated in 1524. The granite East wall of St. Mary’s is famously decorated with carvings believed to represent the Confratrie Ministralorum beate Marie Magdalene (Brotherhood of Minstrels of Blessed Mary Magdalene.) The carvings are now eroded and stained. Baring Gould (1890) and Otho Peters (1901) offered varying interpretations but an 1852 lithograph gives clarification.[iii] Also the Courtney Library of the Royal Institution of Cornwall holds valuable photographs apparently taken in the early years of the 20th century. The pictures reveal more detail than can easily be seen today. To the left are instruments bas: symphonie,[iv] early fiddle, lute and a harp of about four octaves. To the right are instruments haut: bagpipe and clarions or shawms. The leaders of the minstrels have batons and wear chains round ther necks. From their capes or amices they may represent the prior and canons of Launceston. The symphonie player and piper are shown separately, above the other players, perhaps because their roles were different. The only instrumentalists receiving separate payments in the Launceston Borough Accounts are an organist and a piper. Carving three adjacent clarions suggests realism, not just decoration. Again, as the minstrels were known to the mayor, corporation, and congregation, there would be good reason to seek realism within the limitations of the medium.
An early indicator of local music-making is the gift of an antiphonary to the then chapel of St. Mary Magdalen in 1395.[v] The minstrels’ worth is shown by an indulgence of 40 days granted in 1440 by Edmund Lacey, Bishop of Exeter, to true penitents supporting the minstrels.[vi] An oft-repeated but apochryphal tale relates that on a visitation to Launceston, at the top of the climb from Polson Bridge and Ridgegrove, on hearing the minstrels he supposedly said “‘tis the angels singing!” It has been called Angel Hill ever since.[vii] The minstrels must have been good to be thus feted. There is hyperbole in the bishop’s words, but surely he knew good music: he had his own minstrel and Exeter’s cathedral minstrels were well known.
The name, bishop’s remarks, kneeling postures and site of the carvings all tell of church musicians. But from 1445/6 to 1520/1 they feature many times in borough accounts, albeit in marking religious feasts, which suggests a secular aspect to their activity.[viii] The accounts’ last hint of their activity may be in 1574, when sums were: ‘paid for pricking a Magnificat, a Nunc Dimmitis, an anthem and a psalm, V s.’ presumably for a sung Evensong.
Points of Comparison and Similarity
The Launceston carvings, in granite, had less detail than the pew-ends at Altarnun even before their 20th century deterioration. However, the Courtney Library photographs reveal more detail than can easily be seen today. For example the individual keys of the symphonie can be observed, and some costume detail is visible. (figure 3)
Of special interest is the Launceston depiction of the fiddle player (figure 4). The photographs show that he is wearing a paneled tunic. The upper sleeves are bloussoned and the lower sleeves are drawn into long cuffs or guards. In these photographs the fiddle seems rather more rectangular than it appears now. These characteristics are also true of the depiction of the Altarnun fiddler and his instrument. James Merryweather has explained that the Altarnun musicians’ dress is typical of civic musicians. The inference of the similar Launceston depiction is that the Altarnun fiddler may also have been associated with the Minstrels of St. Mary, as they are the nearest such troupe of which we have knowledge.
The clothing of the Altarnun piper is very similar to the fiddler, suggesting that he too might have been a civic minstrel. But although the proximity of Launceston makes such a linkage possible, it cannot be made with as much confidence. The Launceston bagpiper seems to have a single chanter instrument, though (probably) like that at Altarnun it has no drone (figure 5). Why does Altarnun have two chanters when Launceston only has one? The Launceston carving is a side view in which the depiction of two chanters would have been more difficult, though not impossible. Possibly the instruments had different roles – in or out of doors – sacred or secular – solo or accompanied. There is no external evidence to help direct such speculation. However, the apparently conical bore of the Launceston chanter suggests a loud bagpipe for outdoor use, whereas the seemingly parallel bore of the Altarnun instrument suggests a quieter instrument for use indoors. The fact that the carver(s) seems to have intentionally differentiated between the pipes, whilst depicting similar costume, suggests that the carvings are representative. If the artist had just wished to show stereotypical images there would have been no need to differentiate them. Interestingly one of the several twin-chanter bagpipes carvings to have been found since Merryweather’s 2001 survey is at Tavistock, 14 miles South East of Launceston. The carving is eroded, but it is clear that the piper is dressed broadly similarly to the Launceston and Altarnun figures, and his twin chanter bagpipe has one drone.
There is another, speculative connection between Altarnun and Launceston. Henry Trecarrell, whose manor and chapel were outside the village of Lezant, is traditionally associated with St. Mary’s church Launceston as donor of much of the stone. His arms, and the date 1511 are found over the porch. Richard Dawe, described as a carver of Lezant, was engaged by John Waryn (rector from 1506 to after 1534) to restore the chancel at Altarnun. The contract made in Launceston in 1534, was to be completed by Michelemas 1536.
Lezant was not an obvious home for a builder and carver who could have had regular employment in Launceston. Perhaps Dawe was at Lezant to work on Trecarrell’s manor and chapel. When released from that task he may have then worked on Trecarrell’s next project of St Mary’s Launceston. He could then have worked in the chancel at Altarnun. Robert Daye, who made the Altarnun carvings may have had a broadly similar employment pattern. Direct evidence is elusive, but it is possible that both were employed at Altarnun and Launceston.
Such an employment pattern could make it possible for stereotypical images to appear in both Altarnun and Launceston. However, it would also make the carver very familiar with the local musicians and enable him to achieve the detail found at Altarnun where, perhaps, the immediacy of the image required an accurate depiction. The caveats associated with understanding instrumental iconography are unchanged. But this example highlights the need to take each case on its merits and to study context with care. In cases such as the Altarnun carvings there may be arguments for suggesting that the iconography is both accurate and relevant.
A Cornish Context
Setting aside the appearance of the word Tibicen in the Vocabuarium Cornicum of about 1150,[ix] the first certain retention of a piper (type unspecified) in Cornish records is that of Reginald Tibicen noted as holding land in Cuby before 1260/61.[x] The Accounts of the Earldom, 1296-7, mention Henri the pipere of Trigg: his wife Joan was paying a fine of 2s 6d.[xi] The assize record of the 1302 Cornwall Eyre mentions Osbmus Le Pibith and Richare/us Le Pybyth, both of Mousehole.[xii] A 1344 account tells of a disturbance at a Cornwall stannary in Redruth involving a man with the surname Pipere.[xiii]
Pipers receive many mentions in Cornish-language plays from the 14th to early 17th centuries. These are:
1-3 The Ordinalia, a trilogy of Biblical plays known individually as Origo Mundi (OM), Passio Christi (PC), and Resurrexio Domini (RD), written c. 1400, and known from a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript, Oxford MS. Bodl. 791.[xiv]
4.Beunans Meriasek (BM), ‘The Life of St. Meriasek’, found in National Library of Wales MS. Peniarth 105b, a manuscript written in 1504, but whose first ten pages were rewritten in the mid-sixteenth century.
5.Bewnans Ke (BK), ‘The Life of St. Ke’, probably written c. 1500-20, and known only from a fragmentary and imperfect copy of the later sixteenth century, National Library of Wales MS. 23,849D.
6.Gwreans an Bys (GB), also known by its English title Creacion of the World, found in Oxford MS. Bodl. 219, a manuscript written in 1611.
For example Origo Mundi, Resurrexio Domini, Gwreans an Bys, and both halves of Beunans Meriasek (the latter play intended to be performed in two parts on two successive days) conclude with a speech in which a character urges the minstrels (menstrels) or pipers (pyboryon) to ‘pipe’ (peba) ‘so that we may go dancing’ (may hyllyn mos the thonssye, RD 2646; compare BM 2512, BM 4565, GB 2547).[xv]
The Records of Early English Drama conveniently summarise numbers of performances by Lord Botreaux’s Pipers (sometimes also described as minstrels or servants) between 1416/7 and 1433.[xvi] There are also references which post-date the Altarnun and Launceston carvings. A piper was paid at Lostwithiel Riding in 1536/7.[xvii] The 1549/50 Camborne churchwardens’ accounts mention a ‘pyper yn the playe’.[xviii] (Perhaps Bewnans Meriasek, as Meriasek was their patron saint.) St. Ives Accounts for 1571/2 mention paying ‘pypers for there wages’ in association with the performance of another play.[xix] These accounts do not tell us about the instruments used, except that they were conventionally referred to as pipes.
Demonstrably the iconography of bagpipers in Cornwall does not exist in isolation, but in the context of a musical culture of which piping was a significant element.
Figure 6. Hafod 24. Degrees and Instruments of Bardic Apprenticeship. Photograph from S. E. Harper, 2007.
The Cardiff Public Library has a manuscript book known as Hafod 24, the product of the scribe John Jones of Gellilyfdy, near Ysgeifog in Flintshire.[xx] It was compiled from various sources in 1605-10. It is titled Cadwedigaeth Cerdd Dannau, that is the ‘Preservation of Cerdd Dant’, implying that it is a record of the practice of past times concerning the ‘Craft of Strings’. The contents were reproduced more than once in the 16th century, and may have been associated with the Caerwys eisteddfodau of 1523 and 1567. Their origins are in earlier oral tradition. On page 358 is a diagram depicting different levels of bardic apprenticeship. It is illustrated with depictions of a three-stringed crwth as used by students, (masters used the six-stringed version), a nine stringed student harp, and two sets of bagpipes. The illustrations are no more than sketches. However it is clear that one set of bagpipes has a single chanter, the other has two. The twin chanters are parallel; the single chanter is conical. Both instruments have one conical-bore drone. The illustration suggests the use of both types of pipes in 16th century Wales. It has obvious and supportive parallels with the iconography at Altarnun and Launceston. (fig. 6)
A European Context
There were many opportunities for medieval musical culture to travel between Europe and Britain. One very direct example is that of the four continental pipers in the employ of the Black Prince, the first Duke of Cornwall. Between them they had at least a bagpipe, cornemuse (perhaps meaning a small bagpipe), other pipes (type unspecified), tabor and drum..[xxi] They may have been heard in Cornwall when the Duke held his court in Lostwithiel in Summer 1354 and perhaps again in 1363. . As Merriweather explains, the survival of the Zampogna and the description and illustrations of Michael Praetorius (1619) are evidence for the existence of practical twin chanter bagpipes. Certainly Praetorius thought the one he saw was unusual, so although they seem to have been played from Sicily to Northern Germany, such instruments were probably never common. However, given their wide geographical distribution, and proven medieval links between England and Northern Europe, it would be unusual if such instruments altogether evaded the English soundscape.
Documentary evidence refers to pipers in Cornwall from about 1260 to 1520. There is a modest centre of gravity of bagpipe iconography in North-Cornwall and near Devon. Two of these images seem to depict the Confratrie Ministralorum at Launceston. For this troupe we have documentary evidence of payment for performance. There is thus a good probability that these images are realistic.
Within Cornwall and near-Devon, though the sample size is small, the iconography shows a predominance of twin chanter pipes. Clearly to characterise such pipes in general as Cornish is unsustainable. But twin-chanter pipes are no less relevant to Cornwall than (say) Dorset or Yorkshire – the other main areas where such iconography is clustered. In Cornwall documentary evidence supports the existence of a medieval piping tradition. Iconography suggests that, in the 16th century, Cornwall favoured twin chanter bagpipes. Finally in 260 years the community had every opportunity to evolve a sense of ownership of this element of musical culture.
Mike O’Connor February 2008
First published in Chanter, journal of the Bagpipe Society in 2008
[i] Merryweather, J.W., Two Chanter Bagpipes in England, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 54. (May, 2001), pp. 62-75
[ii] Montagu, G and J, Beverly Minster Reconsidered, Early Music, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp. 401-415
[iii] Patterson, S.R., Some Account of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene Launceston (Launceston, 1852)
[iv] Also called chifonie, an early hurdy gurdy. A handle turns a circular wooden bow, keys stop the strings.
[v] Hull, P.L., The Cartulary of Launceston Priory (Torquay, 1987) no. 37
[vi] Hays, R. & McGee, C., Joyce , S., & Newlyn, E., eds., Dorset & Cornwall, Records of Early English Drama (Toronto, Buffalo and London, U of Toronto P, 1999) pp. 491 and 514 refer.
[vii] Peter, O.B., Historical Notes on the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Launceston (Launceston, c1902) pp. 15-17
[viii] The Launceston Borough accounts are held in the Cornwall Record Office, Truro, B/Laus/172 etc., and the references are conveniently repeated in Dorset & Cornwall, Records of Early English Drama mentioned above.
[ix] Campanile, E., Profilo etimologico del cornico antico (Università di Pisa, 1974)
[x] Stenton, D.M. (ed) Pleas Before the King or his Justices, 1198-1202, Vol. II. Selden Society Vol. 68 (Bernard Quaritch, London, 1953) I am grateful to O.J. Padel for identifying this reference.
[xi] Midgley, L.M., Minister’s Accounts of the Earldom of Cornwall, 1296-7 (London, 1942 & 1945) II, p. 264
[xii] National Archives, Kew, JUST. 1/117a mb  quoted in REED Dorset/Cornwall p. 457 note 300
[xiii] National Archives, Kew, C/ 66/212, mb [30d] quoted in REED Dorset/Cornwall p. 499
[xiv] Norris, Edwin, ed. and tr. 1859. The Ancient Cornish Drama. 2 vols. Originally published 1859. Facsimile reprint. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968.
[xv] Bruch, B. Word and Music in Medieval Cornish Drama, Ars Lyrica, 2007. p. 9 summary
[xvi] Wasson, J. M., ed., Devon, Records of Early English Drama (Toronto, Buffalo and London: U of Toronto P, 1986) pp. 85-94
[xvii] PRO: E 31 5/1 22 15 St George s Guild, Steward s Accounts of the Guild of St. George, Lostwithiel, 1536-7
[xviii] CRO: PD/322/1, St. Meriadocus and St. Martin Churchwardens’ Accounts, 1549/50
[xix] Hays, R. & McGee, C., Joyce , S., & Newlyn, E., eds., Dorset & Cornwall, Records of Early English Drama (Toronto, Buffalo and London, U of Toronto P, 1999) p. 398
[xx] Cardiff Public Library MS 2.634 (MS Hafod 24), p. 358
[xxi] Rastall, G.R., Secular Musicians in Late Medieval England (Manchester, 1968)